Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Columbia, 1968
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $4

One of the things I really miss about Lawrence is not getting to listen to KJHK. Not to say that I always enjoyed what KJHK was playing, but upon getting in my car the very first thing I did after turning on the engine was flip to 90.7 and see what was on. Sometimes you catch the middle of one of your favorite songs and establish a sort of trust with the on-air DJ and choose them as your guide for your errands. Sometimes you can tell it’s some twerp with their macbook hooked up to the input because the sound quality is all off, it’s playing some skronky laptop electronica, and you can hear that sound iTunes makes when it’s done ripping a CD (that sounds like I’m being hyperbolic but no lie, I’ve heard that happen on more than one occasion). Over the last couple years, I always seemed to be in transit whenever Vince Meserko was DJing, which was really convenient because he is one of my favorite DJs that station has produced (and in my head, Vince, Nick Dormer, Nick Spacek, and Sean Galloway are KJHK’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse…Rockpocalypse? Arockalypse?). Not only were his rotation shows gold, but he did a blues show called Juke House that was fantastic too. Currently he hosts a show called Hickory Wind that is his masterpiece that broadcasts on Monday nights from 8-10 PM. It just seemed like every single time I got in the car for an extended period of time, that show was on the radio. I’d be driving on and town, getting in and out of the car, doing errand stuff and I’d return to find Hickory Wind in the middle of some excellent folk/country/Americana gem.

The point is, I feel like that radio show really revived my nascent love for Americana. I went on a huge alt-country kick when I started college in 2004 that culminated with a year-plus long obsession with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and never really ended. It waned, for sure, but my love of quality down to earth songwriting and an errant fiddle is as much a part of me as my love for homemade pizza and my dog. And yet, as much as I read about Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I think I’d listened to it once or twice. Gram Parsons was just a name. And then I heard “Return of the Grievous Angel” and something came alive inside of me. Something built in me long before I ever started appreciating music on my own. It was the Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline played so frequently during my childhood and the distrust of anyone who responded to “Anything but country” when asked what kind of music they liked. Because seriously, what kind of bullshit is that? That’s worse than “A little bit of everything” in terms of being non-committal for the sake of trying to be as agreeable as possible. That’s a down right shame because despite pop country being the nadir of modern music, there is still plenty of twangy shit to get down on.

And Sweetheart of the Rodeo has something to do with that. The story of this record is way too long to get into here, but the mythical quality of it was something that I always really truly enjoyed. A psych-tinged jangle pop band best known for their covers of Bob Dylan songs hooking up with an impossibly young rich, druggy genius and basically creating country rock, alt-country, and modern Americana. It’s a brilliant display of fusion. And sure the recording process was a disaster (as you’d expect) and Parsons was booted from the band before the thing was even finished, but the final product is just so great. A blend of country classics, traditionals, a couple of Parsons-penned originals (including the just plain outstanding “Hickory Wind,” which the wife even said “Ooo, I know this one”) and the just sublimely inspired Bob Dylan penned closing track “Nothing was Delivered” that serves as a culmination of every track that came before it and validates this whole weird experiment as something incredibly important. I feel bad that I don’t really know much of the Byrds or their discography, but using this as an endpoint (as Sweetheart is commonly known as their last great album) I would love to trace their lineage.

Why? - Oaklandazulasylum

Why? – Oaklandazulasylum

Anticon, 2003
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $3

Tracing Yoni Wolf’s rap career is a lot like charting the course of Evolution. If Clouddead was the primordial ooze, Oaklandazulasylum was where he grew stubby legs and crawled out of the sea and onto terra firma. This and the sole Hymie’s Basement album are the first phase of the Yoni Wolf that put out three of my favorite albums: Elephant Eyelash, Alopecia, and Eskimo Snow. Those three albums serve as a sort of brutally honest triptych of the artist as a lovable asshole featuring songwriting as good as anyone writing songs in the mid 00s. Oaklandazulasylum is Wolf’s first album as Why? and it plays like a series of sketches laced with a handful of honest to God gems (“Early Whitney,” “Afterschool America,” “Dirty Glass,” “A Little Titanic” to name a few). Here Wolf’s writing becomes more coherent and direct without sacrificing the cryptic lyrics he’d been churning out before. The directness of the lyrics teaming up with the sweetness of the melodies and the potent imagery on “Early Whitney” is the clear turning point. A sort of blueprint for the shape of Why? to come. I don’t know why it always feels so inclined to analyze Why?’s discography. It always happens any time I try to sit down and write about one of their albums. Maybe it’s because I saw Why? perform an absolutely gorgeous version of “Dirty Glass” and didn’t even recognize the song because the words to the original are so buried in electronic haze. But that version of the song was so gorgeous, sung by the two ladies in the band. The fact that these songs stand up to constant reinterpretation and sound just as good or better (they all seem to sound insanely profound when Yoni plays them solo on a keyboard) is a rare and special thing and I don’t know where I got obsessed but it happened and though I hated Mumps, Etc despite like fifty listens over the span of a month, I ain’t giving up on Why?.

Patti Smith - Horses

Patti Smith – Horses
Arista, 1975
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $2.50

True story: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single song from this album. I mean, I’m sure I’ve heard one or two of them, I spent 8 years in a college town listening to and working for a college radio station so one of these tunes slipped in SOMEWHERE. More importantly, given the previously given information how did I so totally miss Patti Smith’s Horses. My only answer is that there is just too much fucking music to be dealt with and sometimes you just gotta get around to what you can, when you can, even the most influential albums of all time. At this point all I have is first impressions of an album with an outstanding amount of depth considering the when it came out and what it preceded. The most inspiring thing is how much weirder it is than what all the other proto-punks were producing in the mid-70s. Sure the Velvet Underground and Television were doing stuff no one had ever done but what Horses does must have made people’s heads bleed. Even today it sounds edgy, and this album came out ALMOST FORTY YEARS AGO.

Tom Verlaine's guitar work on "Break It Up" edged out the rest of the competition to make this my favorite track on the record. I love how every song on this album sounds seconds away from falling apart. I suppose a lot of that has to do with John Cale's production which is proactive enough to keep everything in order and hands off enough to let this thing really unfurl into a chaotic masterpiece.

The Band - Music From Big Pink

The Band – Music From Big Pink
Capitol, 1968
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $3

The only real relationship I have with the Band is that I too once lived in a big pink house. For two years in Lawrence my WIFI was titled “INTERNET FROM BIG PINK” despite never having listened to this album. Not once. Of course, like all children with fathers who’d come of age in the 70s and felt obligated to play nothing but classic rock radio whenever their children were in the car, I am as familiar as anyone with “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released,” but that’s as far as I go. This morning I am listening to Music From Big Pink for the first time and I feel like every muscle in my body is relaxing. I don’t think “laid back” is a strong enough descriptor. Sure the music is great, but what really comes through is the fact that these songs were jammed out by a bunch of buddies in a big pink house while they were serving as Bob Dylan’s backing band. The cohesiveness of this album depite its looseness is truly magnificent. The thumbprint of Dylan (and the thumbs up seal of approval) helps but the real winners here are courtesy of The Band. 

Also, the guitar sound on "Lonesome Suzie" is one of the most beautiful things ever.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bruce Springsteen - Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Bruce Springsteen – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
Columbia, 1973
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $1.50

 So this guy has been bringing his record collection into HPB St. Paul like every other day and holy shit, all us record geeks (which is most of us, come to think of it) have been like kids in a candy store going through all this stuff. Whole runs of the Boss, Dylan, Gram Parsons, Townes van Zandt, the Fugs, the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Band, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, etc, etc, etc. And it’s all in fantastic shape. A dream record buy that just keeps going. So anyway, I’ve been using this as an opportunity to fill in the gaps in my record collection (and of course snag some fantastic records I thought I’d never, ever see i.e. Grievous Angel, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and every John Prine album). I’ve only recently come around to Bruce Springsteen. I kind of had a longstanding hatred with Born to Run and then a couple of years ago (dovetailing nicely with my adoration of the Hold Steady) really came around. Not to Born to Run, but to Tunnel of Love and Nebraska. The songwriting on those albums is Bruce at his purest and most vulnerable and something clicked and there you go.

I’ve never listened to Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Not once. The only song I’m even familiar with is “Blinded by the Light” and that’s only the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version. I think that’s for the best, because coming to the Boss’ debut LP with fresh ears is so exciting I’m giddy. Mostly because of how longwinded he is with his lyrics sheet. The Hold Steady are often compared to the Springsteen, and this is the album where I really, truly see that comparison in all its glory. At the same time you can see Bruce Springsteen very much influenced by Bob Dylan. The thing that keeps Springsteen from being a mere imitator though is that he is just much, much cooler than Bob Dylan. Sure Dylan was cool in the 60s, but not at all the same kind of cool that Springsteen embodies. There’s so much spirit here and so much charm it’s kind of impossible to turn up your nose. Or I suppose you could but come ON how could anyone actively hate an album that’s just so wide-eyed and pure of heart?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

Gram Parsons – Grievous Angel
Reprise, 1974
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $4

Outside of hearing “$1000 Wedding” on KJHK a couple of times, I’d never listened to Gram Parsons until I was driving down a two-lane highway in the middle of Missouri on a bit of a reprieve from a hectic, rainy wedding at Knob Noster State Park. I put my iPod to shuffle and “Return of the Grievous Angel” was the first track that came on. I had a moment, driving in the rain to a Wal-Mart in some backwoods redneck township, and it was a beautiful moment. Where you go “Yes, this song will be a staple on every ‘My Favorite Songs of All Time’ mix from now and forever Amen.” As an album, it feels a bit cobbled together (Grievous Angel was released four months after Parsons’ drug-overdose death in 1973) but the songs are so good and Parsons vision is so clear that it doesn’t really matter. Someday they’ll make a biopic of the man (read his Wikipedia page and tell me that doesn’t read like some incredibly ripe subject matter for a biopic, especially the bit his friends kidnapping his body post-mortem) and he’ll get the fame he deserves for pretty much creating alt-country and Americana as it is today. And as special as Parsons is as a tunesmith, it’s his collaboration with Emmylou Harris that makes you want to lay down and die it’s so fucking good. Their duet of “Love Hurts” comes in a close second for best version of that song (second only to the Robert Pollard/Kim Deal version because, you know, c’mon!) and “Return of the Grievous Angel” wouldn’t be one of my favorite songs of all time without incredibly heart-wrenching back-up vox cutting through the fiddles and right into my soul. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
RCA, 1972
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $3
Ziggy Stardust never even sounds like it’s trying to establish itself as one of the best records of all time. And yet, there it is, one of those perfect albums you listen to and just go “Good goddamn this is the real fucking deal isn’t it?” I’m not a Bowie acolyte, but I understand how others could be. My sister was, and memories of my home during my high school years involve the Ziggy Stardust poster on her door. It’s the piece of album art I’m most familiar with. Every time I cam out of the bathroom, there was David Bowie standing outside that green door on a rainy street with “K. West” over his head. Sonically it’s drifted in and out of my consciousness for many years and I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down and listened to the whole thing all the way through. That’s the hazard of putting together a record where almost every song is a hit single. Most of these are eternally welcome whenever I hear them on the radio (which is more often than you’d think). If you strip away all the glam front and the swagger and the costumes, these are just astoundingly brilliant pop songs. Great melodies all the way through. But that glam front and swagger makes them brilliant. And weaving them into a concept album revolving around the (seemingly drug induced) story about an alien coming to Earth in its last five years and assuming the role of a rock and roll star and his eventual demise is the finishing touch that puts Ziggy Stardust into the realm of legend. It’s a perfect artifact from the late 70s. A cultural touchstone disguised as a goofy glam rock story. But it’s not goofy at all! That’s the great trick of Stardust isn’t it! I feel like people spend their lives going “Oh yeah David Bowie he’s a huge weirdo yeah yeah” but the story is prophetic, mythic, important, and straight-up fucking awesome. And sure, glam rock was responsible for the hair metal of the 80s, but what it did to spit in the face of traditional gender roles is something grand. And holy shit do the riffs on this album slay or what?! I swear every time I sit down with my guitar the first thing I do is run through the G-D-C of “Ziggy Stardust” and roughly play the first verse. This stuff sticks with you. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

John Prine - Bruised Orange

John Prine – Bruised Orange
Asylum, 1978
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $2

For some reason I’m finding every other John Prine album. Once I stumble upon Diamonds in the Rough and Common Sense, I’ll have his first five albums. Still, every time I find one I do a minor freak out. Bruised Orange showed up in a buy I was absolutely reluctant to do. There was a sack of ugly books and a mystery box that, upon further inspection, held some grungy records. But as I disgustedly dug through the records, I saw some good shit. Some nicer shit. Some Bob Dylan resissues in great shape, a couple of obscure Moondog records, and then at the bottom, this one. When pitching the offer, I was extra encouraging to the lady to bring in any more records she might have. The Year of John Prine continues. I am obsessed. I often sit and wonder, fist on chin, what the next band I fall in love with is gonna sound like. And this time around it’s a dude from Chicago who utilizes and absolutely genius blend of wit and sadness and joy. Though Prine’s eponymous debut is my absolute favorite, both Bruised Orange and Sweet Revenge have at least five songs that are real knock-outs. The real killers here though are “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” which is maybe the saddest touring song ever and “Bruised Orange,” which you can just imagine a young Justin Vernon listening to and being inspired by (Vernon covered the song on the Prine tribute album he put together, after all). “Fish and Whistle” is pretty great too, encapsulating the civilized brand of shit-kicking Prine brings to his erudite country/folk.

Billy Bragg - Talking with the Taxman About Poetry

Billy Bragg – Talking with the Taxman About Poetry
Elektra, 1986
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $6

While awaiting my shift leader interview at the St. Paul HPB, I should have read finding a copy of Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry as a good omen. I can’t think of another album I’ve listened to more in 2012. It’s a crying shame that year end lists have to be made up of albums that actually came out during that year. If not, this would be at the top. Which always happens. A personal best-of transcending time. Or maybe a sort of music nerd’s Chinese Zodiac, where for me 2010 was the Year of the Lemonheads, 2011 the Year of the Lemonheads, and 2012 is the Year of Billy Bragg.

Something just clicked. I first heard Bragg’s music my first year on KJHK’s music staff. It was 2006 and it was a very good year. Music staff kind of cracked open the cage of my inner music snob, the one I kept locked away for fear no one would like me because I was mean or elitist or whatever. By that point, I didn’t care. I wanted to take in as much music as humanly possible and quite frankly, there is probably no better way to facilitate that than to work on a college radio station’s music staff. It’s where I met people like Nick Spacek and Nick Dormer and Sean Galloway and other fellow music nerds who made this sort of venture into the dark side of the recorded arts a real, true, honest and life-altering joy. The whole thing was a fantastic privelege, and somewhere in that first year Yep Roc Records reissued Billy Bragg’s back catalog and I reviewed a sampler that covered the first half of his discography. Up til that point, I’d just known Billy Bragg as that guy who wasn’t Wilco who did the Woody Guthrie Mermaid Avenue thing. And then I heard “A New England” and I feel like after that, I thought about everything differently. Some brand new thing was revealed, some life lesson taught, some transcendent moment that music nerds long for the way wine nerds scour the land for ancient vintages or comic book nerds track down an issue with the first appearance of Wolverine or Superman. The way a drug addict chases scrapes together enough money for that next fix. I’ve never been a drug addict, and have no desire to become one, so I can only pretend that instantly hearing a song, acknowledging that it is changing your life, and having a sort of orgasmic personal moment is just as good as smack.

And I got to have that feeling all over again when I listened to Talking with the Taxman About Poetry all the way through for the first time this summer. I’d just moved to Minneapolis and they had me doing CDs. I would spend any free time not on the register or at the buy counter in the basement, pounding through flats and flats of CDs in a strange daze. The thing that made the daze manageable was having music going in the background, and one day I saw Talking with the Taxman About Poetry sitting on top of a pile and put it in. And then I listened to it again. And then that was all I listened to for a week. And then I took it home and ripped it to my computer and burned it to a CD and it didn’t leave my car stereo for a month and now I’m here and a true believer. Sometimes you just stumble on music that speaks right to that black little shriveled up thing inside your chest that may or may not be your soul and a la the Grinch your heart grows three sizes. These days this is the record I push off onto anybody asking for a recommendation.

The Postal Service - Give Up

The Postal Service – Give Up
Sub-Pop, 2003
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $5

In the nearly 10 years since this Give Up’s release I’ve probably listened to the album a hundred times. It was ubiquitous through my last year of high school and all through college. A security blanket of sorts. A shoulder to cry on after every heartbreak and letdown. A CD locked in the player during those cold Kansas winters where I would just drive around Lawrence smoking cigarettes and contemplating my life as the synths on “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” rattled through the crappy speakers in my car. As much as I associate this with sadness, I’ve associated “Such Great Heights” and moreover “Brand New Colony” with the positive relationships and I’m pretty sure I quoted “Clark Gable” to the first girl I kissed before I kissed her.

I’m listening to this now as a working stiff married dude and all of my sentimentality for it seems to have melted away. There’s a nostalgic pull, because I’ve listened to this album so many times, but there’s a corniness really shining through this time around. And I’m thinking that’s due to Ben Gibbard’s growth as a songwriter. Though Death Cab For Cutie’s albums have been pretty spotty, the songs that really won were big steps forward. Strangely, as successful as Death Cab has become, this is the album Gibbard will be remembered for. The gateway drug to all those teenagers who heard it and settled for Death Cab.

My new favorite thing about Give Up is that it will be the Postal Service’s only album. It would have been so easy to exploit the album’s success but they didn’t. That’s admirable. And now it’s just this independent little thing for future generations to discover and fawn over. I feel like this thing is going to get more and more dated, but in a fun way. The way 80s music is dated and cheesy but in a positive way.